Leading Lights: Mabel Lane

MABEL LANE, née Gray

Born in about 1870 in Ballarat, Mabel Gray grew up in country Victoria and Melbourne, before moving to Brisbane with her parents in 1885, where she completed her education at the Normal School. Trained as a milliner, she worked for Edward and Lamb. With three co-workers, she joined the Early Closing Association, a movement to limit shopping hours and close ‘early’ instead of at midnight; it was urged in part to protect young shop-workers from overwork and night-time predation. She and her friends were the first female members. Mabel also jointed the Freethought Society and meet some of the key players in the labour movement; she was a foundation member of the feminist Women’s Equal Franchise Association; and she assisted the feisty labour leader, Emma Miller, in the Prisoner’s Relief Fund formed when the strike leaders of great strikes of the 1890s were goaled.

What we know about Mabel Lane mostly comes from the recent fascinating biography The Conscientious Communist of her husband Ernie Lane.[1] He was the brother of William Lane, the visionary socialist and intellectual who inspired the New Australia settlement in Paraguay. Ernie Lane was a key political organiser in Queensland holding various positions in the labour, socialist and communist movements; he was the industrial writer for the labour newspaper Daily Standard. From Jeff Rickertt’s account, it becomes clear that Mabel excelled as a social networker and hostess; not only in Paraguay where they followed the earlier contingents, but also their family home in Highgate Hill when they returned to Brisbane. They had married in 1895 and had four children. From 1912 ‘Cosme’ in Brisbane was to become a vibrant centre of discussion, politics and entertainment, a ‘haven for rebels’ and ‘centre of continuous hospitality’.[2] Euchre, dancing, and ‘vocal numbers’ were billed to aid seamen or raise funds for workers. According to Rickertt, Cecilia Johns and Adela Pankhurst stayed with the Lanes on their tour in 1915; later Kathleen Hotson stayed with them on her visit to Queensland.

Mabel Lane was organiser, fund raiser, canvasser, networker and secretary. She took up key, and key enabling, positions in the Women’s Peace Army. She chaired the very first meeting in December 1915, after its formation. That night, she took two position as a vice-president and assistant secretary,[3] and she was nominated to join Emma Miller and Margaret Thorp on a deputation to the Industrial Council about anti-conscription strategies. She was responsible for donations to the ‘fighting fund’. She was in charge of the ‘peace literature’ which included the Victorian Woman Voter.[4] In June 1917 a surprise party was thrown for her to acknowledge her ‘tireless zeal for the Peace and Socialist movements, particularly on their social side’.[5] ‘No scheme was too big for her efforts’. Taken unawares, Mabel Lane expressed her ‘keen appreciation of the presentation’.

Later she went on to participate in the formation of the Queensland Socialist League, take on the role of agent for the distribution of Victoria’s socialist newspaper The Socialist and work with the Labour Women’s Vigilance Organisation, and the Women Workers’ Organisation among other activities.

[1] Jeff Rickertt, The Conscientious Communist, Ernie Lane and the Rise of Australian Socialism, Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016.

[2] ‘Presentation to Mrs Lane’, Daily Standard, 27 June, 1917, p.3.

[3] ‘Women’s Peace Army’, Worker, 9 December 1915, p. 15.

[4] ‘Women’s Peace Army’, Daily Standard, 23 September 1916, p. 4.

[5] ‘Presentation to Mrs Lane’, Daily Standard, 27 June, 1917, p.3.

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